What it's about: Father Gabriele Amorth served as the official exorcist of The Vatican for over 30 years. On May 1, 2016, he granted legendary filmmaker William Friedkin a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of attending and filming the live exorcism of an Italian architect who believes she has been possessed by a satanic force. Friedkin uses his footage to dive into issues of faith, psychology, neurology, evil, and the Catholic Church's exorcism ritual through interviews with leading scientists, members of the Church, those who have experienced exorcisms first-hand, and Father Amorth.
There probably shouldn't be another filmmaker given this extremely rare opportunity to make this film than William Friedkin. Obviously, The Exorcist remains the cultural touchstone for demonic possessions, in a lot of ways shaping the way we think exorcisms work. Father Amorth himself told Friedkin that The Exorcist was his favorite film and that despite the special effects being a little over-the-top, it went a long way to explain what he did for his life's work.
All that being said, The Devil and Father Amorth is a big disappointment. My expectations were probably too high but why shouldn't I expect incredible out of this?
The film opens with Friedkin standing in front of the camera, pointing at different locations that were important to the story that inspired William Peter Blatty's novel. Almost immediately I realized that this was a shoe-string budget documentary that wouldn't be out of place on A&E. Given the serious nature of the documentary, with a tone that should be straight out of The Exorcist, this is particularly strange.
Even with an almost corny set-up, The Devil and Father Amorth's saving grace should be the centerpiece footage from the real exorcism. This sequence, which lasts about 15 minutes all in one take, is definitely the most captivating part of the film and yet it still disappoints. Maybe there is too much bias in what to expect, taught over the years by The Exorcist and the dozens of copies. In this case, the process plays out dramatically differently.
The most immediate striking thing is realizing that the exorcism takes place in a small office-like room, well lit, during the day, and completely packed with onlookers [mostly family of the possessed]. The room recites scripture and Father Amorth speaks to Christina, most of which isn't subtitled. Christina pleads and shrieks in a voice that does have a creepy and strange quality. Overall, though, the footage is meant to be anthropological, not shot like a horror movie scene, so it doesn't have that effect at all.
After the footage is shot, much of the second half of the movie consists of Friedkin speaking with scientists and theologians about the footage and the idea of exorcism more broadly. The scientists, including top neurosurgeons from UCLA and the Tel Aviv Medical Center, are all game, they deal with Friedkin's pointed questions with a mix of scientific integrity, wonder, and side-stepping.
A discussion with a group of Columbia University psychiatrists is a bit more fruitful, as the field actually looks at demonic possession as something of a "real" phenomenon -- basically, if the patient believes they are being possessed, they treat it with seriousness and care. They even believe that the ritual of an exorcism can even have a positive effect in these cases.
The potential problem, however, is that The Devil and Father Amorth doesn't do anything to make me trust what I'm seeing during Christina's exorcism is "real." Friedkin is an able provocateur, but none of his compelling questions find any answers.
The finale recalls an interview between Friedkin and Christina which was unfortunately not filmed. Friedkin met with the woman in an old city on a mountaintop outside of Rome and he recounts the bizarre story of Christina writing around and violently threatening -- something more akin to an exorcism movie than what we previous witnessed. It just feels like a lot opportunity.
Or perhaps this is more of Friedkin's provocation. If this is all an embellishment, like the fictionalized story seen in The Exorcist, he got it right the first time.
In an interview with The Ringer, Friedkin spoke about his long talks with Father Amorth on his own religious beliefs and questions and also provided a bit more insight into Amorth's strange and controversial life. Unfortunately, none of this is in The Devil and Father Amorth. This points to how a broader biography of Amorth set around the exorcism and scientific explanations could have been a little more fulfilling.